After November: 5 Middle East Headaches That Await the U.S.

Last week's U.N. General Assembly session served up reminders that the next White House may have little option but to deal with a number of crises previously deferred

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Zac Baillie / AFP / Getty Images

A rebel fighter is carried down from a third-story apartment after being wounded by a Syrian government tank shell during a battle between rebels and Syrian army forces in Aleppo on Sept. 26, 2012

1. Despite Netanyahu’s Retreat, Avoiding War with Iran Will Get Harder

For all of his summer saber rattling and efforts to pressure the Obama Administration into stating imminent red lines for war with Iran, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively retreated at the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. Despite the familiar apocalyptic rhetoric, Netanyahu took care to signal Israel’s cooperation with the Obama Administration on the issue. More important, he drew his own red line — somewhat confusingly, given the much lampooned graphic on which he relied — at Iran possessing a sufficient stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to reprocess into one bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. At present rates of enrichment, he claimed, that point would be reached next spring or summer. Leave aside the considerable body of expert opinion that holds that the U.S. would have a lot more time than Netanyahu suggests to respond to an overt move by Iran to build nuclear weapons, the Israeli leader nonetheless once again wound forward his doomsday alarm clock, setting it to ring sometime early next year.

That seemed to take off the table the threat of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections before November’s election. But the occupant of the Oval Office early next year may face a more acute crisis: sanctions have not so far changed Iran’s nuclear calculations, and such concessions as Iran has offered by way of capping its nuclear work are not ones that the Obama Administration has been ready to accept as a basis for easing sanctions. Iran doesn’t trust the U.S. any more than the U.S. trusts Iran, and Tehran believes the real purpose of the sanctions is to create economic chaos in the hope of provoking an uprising against the regime. Such suspicions will have been heightened by Friday’s U.S. decision to remove the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an exile armed group that fought for Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s and which is widely reviled even among leaders of the opposition Green Movement, from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

(MORE: Apocalyptic Talk Aside, Israel Has Dialed Down Its Threat to Bomb Iran — for Now)

And Netanyahu has given notice that he’ll be loudly banging the drum for action by springtime unless, as remains unlikely, Iran effectively throws in the towel on the nuclear standoff before then. Whether it’s President Obama or a President Romney, the White House early next year may face a stark choice between continuing a policy that escalates toward confrontation or trying to avoid one by taking the political risk of initiating a new diplomatic effort with Iran that goes beyond the current nuclear talks.

2. Syria: Is ‘Revolutionary Patience’ Sustainable?

Syria’s escalating bloodbath hasn’t changed the Obama Administration’s reluctance to consider direct military intervention to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime. While Turkey has pushed for a U.S.-led military operation to create a protected zone on Syrian territory for refugees and rebel fighters, and Qatar has pushed for a Libya-style “no-fly zone” and even intervention by Arab troops, others opposed to Assad — including a number of Syrian opposition groups, and also Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy — reject foreign military intervention. Of course, Morsy may not include Arab intervention under the “foreign” rubric — one of his aides on Sunday, responding to a Qatari call for an Arab military intervention, said “Egypt is ready to take part in an Arab intervention in Syria as long as this would not be used as an excuse for international intervention.” But such a proposal may not be realistic absent U.S. involvement, given the capabilities of the countries that would support it.

While the rebels and the regime appear committed to a fight to the finish, the question facing international players is whether to push for a halt to the violence and an imperfect political process or escalate backing for their preferred sides in a fight to the finish. Obama last week called for the ouster of “a dictator who massacres his own people” but offered no ideas on how to achieve that goal. “We must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence,” he warned, stressing one of the key dangers restraining Washington from more direct intervention: the fact that Syria already appears to be descending into a sectarian civil war, which could make any intervention an open-ended quagmire. Instead, Obama vowed simply to support those Syrians fighting for an inclusive democratic future and imposing sanctions on those responsible for repression.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

The U.S. has until now avoided both direct intervention and also international efforts — like those recommended by former U.N. envoy Kofi Annan — to broker a compromise agreement involving the regime’s key backer, Iran. Instead, the Administration appears to be adopting a long-range strategy in which the tightening noose of sanctions and grinding attrition of an insurgency that can’t be crushed eventually bring down the regime, probably some time next year.

But that time frame may be more than Syria’s neighbors are willing to take, with Turkey under growing strain as a result of the burgeoning refugee crisis, internal sectarian tension and the emergence of a hostile Kurdish rebel zone inside Syria. Ankara fears that a protracted war scenario harks back to the effort to support Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s. “President Obama prefers to go down the path of a long drawn-out struggle, like Afghanistan in the 1980s,” analyst Bulent Aliriza of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Financial Times last week. “But that’s not good enough for Turkey. It does not want to be like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen, it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”

And last Thursday’s announcement by the U.N.’s refugee agency that as many as 700,000 Syrians will have fled to neighboring countries by the end of this year underscores the burden such a timescale will impose. Cross-border insurgency inevitably emboldens like-minded radicals in neighboring countries, as Lebanon and Iraq have already discovered.

No new ideas emerged in Friday’s Friends of Syria confab convened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York City, while President Morsy’s proposed contact group comprising Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran has yet to gain any traction. But the strain of a protracted war on Syria’s U.S.-allied neighbors could force them to put a choice before the winner of November’s U.S. presidential election: either intervene quickly and decisively to settle matters or accept that the urgency of stopping the war may require an imperfect, even unpalatable compromise.

MORE: Despite Syria’s Bloodbath, Libya-Style Intervention Remains Unlikely

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